RANGERS kept pace with Hibernian in the race for second place with a win that suggests last week’s comprehensive defeat at Queen of the South was only a stumble in their Stuart McCall-led renaissance.
Rangers - 4
Clark (6), Vuckic (27), Law (72, 88)
Raith Rovers - 0
Referee: S Finnie
This, at least, is the firm hope of the majority of yesterday’s crowd on a chilly if bright afternoon at Ibrox, where there was little sign Raith could emulate their historic victory here in February’s Scottish Cup tie.
Some interpreted last Thursday night’s 3-0 loss at Palmerston Park, where Rangers also lost in Ally McCoist’s penultimate game as manager, as meaning McCall’s honeymoon period, if there ever was one, was over.
Few could claim this victory proved anything beyond ensuring Rangers are still very much in contention to claim second spot in the league. Raith, whose own hopes of reaching the play-offs perished last week after a heavy reversal against Cowdenbeath, provided a meagre challenge.
But the straightforward win keeps Rangers on Hibs’ tail and means they have the chance to overtake the Easter Road side against Livingston on Wednesday in their game in hand. That will likely prove a different kind of challenge against a side desperate to maintain their Championship status.
Referee Stephen Finnie offered more in the way of resistance yesterday than the little-to-play-for Raith when accidentally blocking a pass the young Rangers midfielder Andy Murdoch was looking to sweep out to the wing. This victory seemed to confirm once more that Rangers’ link with Mike Ashley, the Newcastle United owner reported to be now claiming ownership of the club’s official badge, has produced one positive at least; Haris Vuckic.
The midfielder scored his seventh goal in 15 appearances, and his fifth in a row at Ibrox, since joining the club on loan from Newcastle in January. The others in the five-player package sent to Glasgow from the North-east, most of whom are apparently injured, might not find themselves being celebrated so wildly in Govan, but Vuckic really does look the real deal.
His goal yesterday was a carbon copy of the one he scored against Hearts a week earlier and another one he struck against Livingston before that. “Every time he cuts in on his left foot you expect the net to bulge,” said McCall later. The No 10 has a pleasing fluency about him and his qualities tend to stand out in desperately mediocre games such as yesterday.
His strike after 27 minutes, which put Rangers two goals up, all but sealed the points for the home side. It was his signature kind of goal; picking up the ball on the edge of the box he dinked inside, evaded a challenge and then picked his spot in the far corner. On this occasion it was Kevin Cuthbert who was the goalkeeper left without an earthly, just as Neil Alexander had been seven days earlier and Darren Jamieson of Livingston was last month.
Defenders should be getting wise to this trick by now but they aren’t. Or perhaps they simply do not have what it takes to stop an English Premier League-quality player. Vuckic has settled well into life at Ibrox and has developed a rapport with the supporters, who gave him another round of applause as he returned to his position in front of the Sandy Jardine Stand.
Rangers went ahead after only six minutes when the Nickys combined at a corner awarded following a poor attempt to clear by the Raith defence. If this was bad, then their defending from the set-piece was worse. No-one made an attempt to track Nicky Clark’s run after Nicky Law flighted in a corner. The striker simply had to concentrate on ensuring he got a good connection and he planted a firm header past Cuthbert.
Vuckic’s strike followed 20 or so minutes later when he was fed the ball by Robbie Crawford, who was deployed at right-back unusually. The home supporters probably anticipated what was going to happen next. Raith’s response was poor; a Ryan Conroy free kick saved by Cammy Bell was the closest they came, although the same player did see another shot at the beginning of the second-half spin agonisingly wide.
Christian Nade, Raith’s match winner in the cup here, was not sent on until the 70th minute. Rangers scored their third soon afterwards. Things were getting so comfortable for the hosts that we even had a sighting of the lesser-spotted Kris Boyd to report. As against Queen of the South, McCall handed him a late substitute appearance.
On this latest occasion, rather than try to help retrieve an impossible situation, he was offered the circumstances in which to boost his flagging confidence. While Rangers did extend their lead, it was not due to Boyd, although the striker did have a chance.
Vuckic selflessly provided the striker with the opportunity to add to his three league goals to date this season. Boyd’s effort after a lay-off from the Slovenian said everything about his current state of mind. The striker’s shot was easily gathered by Cuthbert while the watching Vuckic probably wondered why he had not just tested the goalkeeper himself.
Still, Boyd’s arrival did coincide with a stage in the game when Rangers’ margin of victory became more emphatic. Law crowned a busy afternoon for him personally with a brace and one he deserved for his persistence. When his deflected shot after 81 minutes, following substitute Tom Walsh’s cross, bashed back off the post, Law was composed enough to gather the ball and slip a shot past Cuthbert.
With two minutes left, Law waltzed through the visitors’ defence before very deliberately placing a neatly curled effort into the far corner of Cuthbert’s goal to boost Rangers’ goal difference, something which might yet become significant. Indeed, that they did not manage to overhaul Hibs by scoring a few more goals yesterday might be the only frustration for the home side.
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